Tunisia… Egypt… Libya… Let’s look closer to home

by Daniel Scoullar

originally appeared at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au

The mass uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other nearby countries have put despotic rulers, human rights abuses and self-determination into our nightly news bulletins and daily conversations in a way that happens very rarely.

The seemingly contagious way these movements for freedom have spread from country to country makes them particularly fascinating, but there is another reason why they have captured the public imagination. It’s because Australians recognise the ‘fair go’ principle, which can also be put in terms of the human right for every person to be safe from harm, to have control over their lives and to have a say in how their country’s run – regardless of whether they live in Bundoora or Benghazi.

In turn, many of us would also be surprised to hear that we have state sponsored violence and political exclusion much closer to home. They would be further surprised to hear these abuses are taking place within Indonesia, a case study for positive social, economic and political reform.

Despite holidaying in Bali, seeing Jakarta on the news or even watching a wildlife documentary shot in the Sumatran jungle, you could be excused for never having heard of West Papua. It comprises the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half belongs to Papua New Guinea) and a collection of small islands.

West Papua’s landscape is one of tropical islands, coconut strewn beaches, impenetrable rain forests and rugged snow capped mountain peaks. It is home to around three million people, including some of the last remaining humans still untouched by the modern world.

West Papua’s modern history is marked by exploitation and resilience. Colonial explorers claimed it as Dutch territory in the 1600s, the Japanese and Americans made it a key battleground of World War II and the newly independent Indonesian nation invaded and forcibly occupied the territory in 1962, just 13 years before they would do the same in East Timor.

In the 50 years since then, West Papua has been ruled as a country-apart within Indonesia. This is somewhat ironic given West Papua is physically, culturally and historically separate from the rest of Indonesia. Its traditional ties run east and south to Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, northern Australia and the Pacific.

Where military and police abuses were curtailed elsewhere, they were encouraged in West Papua. While ‘unity in diversity’ was the national motto, West Papuan traditional culture was violently suppressed and almost a million ‘transmigrants’ were shipped in and given the reigns of local government and the economy. Even as the post-Suharto human rights reforms resulted in greater freedom of speech for those in Jakarta, incarceration or death are still the standard penalties for raising the Morning Star flag in West Papua. An estimated 100,000 local people have been killed during the occupation.

In 2007 I travelled from East Timor through Indonesia, West Papua and Papua New Guinea on my way back to Australia. My lasting memories are of friendly West Papuans inviting me into their homes to practice English with their children and heavily armed military personnel/police stopping me in the street for seemingly random questioning. When I returned to Melbourne, I met members of the West Papuan refugee community here and learned more about the extent of the abuses taking place in their homeland.

A recent example captured on video and shared on the internet, shows two Papuan men being cruelly tortured by security forces, including one having his genitals burnt. Other examples include activists being shot at demonstrations – or just disappearing. Local prisons are full of political prisoners who have committed no crime other than raising their voice.

It is also important to differentiate this critique of state sponsored human rights abuses and a lack of self-determination from a more general attack on Indonesia as a nation or its culture.

As someone who speaks Indonesian moderately well and has lived and travelled in the region, I know first hand the beautiful diversity within Indonesia’s awe inspiring 17,500 island archipelago. The majority of its 240 million people are not disputing their place in this nation state and democratic, social, economic and political progress continues in most areas.

Nevertheless, acknowledging Indonesia’s strengths is not the same as writing a blank cheque to the worst elements within its military and government. After 24 years of silence, Australia finally found the moral and political strength to take a stand on behalf of the East Timorese people and this is what is needed again, not just from our Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but from other world leaders within our region and right across the globe.

We all know that international diplomacy can be a dirty business where economic and political interests take precedence over doing what is right. We should acknowledge that it is politics and economics that are the key barriers blocking the Australian government from advocating on behalf of the West Papuan people. There is no easy villain such as Muammar Gaddafi to hold up as a symbol of evil. It’s more complicated than that.

International diplomacy can also be a powerful force for improving lives. While East Timor remains poor, I didn’t meet a single person there who wanted to go back to Indonesian rule. Australia is a regional leader, particularly in the areas of good governance and human rights protection, and we should not shy away from this role. We have the power to make a difference in West Papua and, in turn, we carry the corresponding responsibility to do so.

If we simply cast our gaze to distant parts of the world, where people are paying with their lives for basic freedoms, we will overlook those closer to home paying with their own lives for those same freedoms.

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